The Ascent.

Ancient cities all around the eastern Mediterranean were built on an “acropolis,” a piece of easily defended high ground. There is one in Jerusalem, called the Temple Mount. According to Jewish tradition, this is where God made Adam and where Abraham came close to sacrificing his son Isaac. Regardless of whether that is true, it is the site on which King Solomon built the First Temple (c. 1000 BC) and it later served as the site for the Second Temple (516 BC). The Western Wall is all that remains of the Second Temple.[1] So, it is a holy place for Jews. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad ascended into Heaven from the Temple Mount to receive Islam’s “Five Pillars” from Allah (621 AD). So it is a holy place for Muslims. Both the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock were later built to commemorate Muhammad’s journey.[2]

Possession is nine-tenths of the law, as someone said. From 1187 to 1967, Muslims ruled the Old City of Jerusalem. Jews were barred from entering the Temple Mount compound. In 1967, Israel seized the Old City during the Six Days War. A new regime allowed Jews to enter the Temple Mount compound, but not to pray there.

This arrangement didn’t please Muslims, but it drove some Jews crazy. They have demanded that Jews be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount. After an Israeli-American murdered two Muslim in the Dome of the Rock in 1982, tensions rose. Sometimes Jews on the Temple Mount were attacked by rock-throwers. Eventually, in 2010, Ariel Sharon, then the leader of the opposition in Israel’s parliament (Knesset) visited the Temple Mount to visibly assert the right of Jews to be on the Temple Mount. This led to rioting by Palestinians that initiated what is called the “Second Intifada (Uprising).”

Then skip ahead to late 2014. More and more Israeli settlers have moved into East Jerusalem over the years, stoking fears that Arabs would be pushed out entirely. Without success, Jews had continued to lobby for the right to pray on the Temple Mount. One of the most vocal of these was shot by a Palestinian who was, in turn, killed by the Israeli police. Palestinians again rioted and the police pushed back hard. This bitter quarrel then became entangled in the equally bitter quarrel between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After Israel closed off access to the Temple Mount, Abbas called it “a declaration of war.” Rumors soon spread—almost certainly originating with Abbas—that Israel planned to take control of the site and to allow Jews to pray there. Netanyahu has repeatedly denied this, to no avail.

A whole series of knife attacks by Palestinians against Israelis have occurred. By early November 2015, eight Israelis were dead.

The dispute over the Temple Mount provides an excuse to fight rather than a cause to fight. Why are young Palestinians disposed to fight right now? One answer could be that yet another generation of Palestinians has grown up with the failed “peace process” that never yields a self-governing Palestinian state. The First Intifada (1987-1993) and the Second Intifada (2000-2005) were expressions of this frustration. Now a Third Intifada is beginning.

Another answer could be that the same forces that have sent so many young Muslim men to fight for ISIS and other Islamist groups are now gaining a hold on young Palestinians. This is by far the more ominous explanation. So far, the Palestinians only have knives. If ISIS can find a way to arm the rebels with guns and explosives, Israel will face a daunting threat.   A big “If.”

[1] The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 79 AD.

[2] “The struggle over the Temple Mount,” The Week, 20 November 2015, p. 11.

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Dilemmas, dilemmas.

America’s involvement in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq has forced Americans to confront all sorts of painful issues. It appears that they have had a hard time reaching a steady conclusion.

America may be the “most powerful nation in the world,” but most Americans don’t want to be part of projecting that power. Ten years ago, two years after the invasion of Iraq, 70 percent of Americans opposed reviving the military draft; 66 percent would attempt to dissuade a daughter from enlisting; 55 percent would attempt to persuade a son not to enlist. On the other hand, 27 percent favored reviving the draft; and 32 percent would encourage a son to enlist.[1]

The means used to wage the war on terror have disturbed Americans. In January 2010, 63 percent of American voters believed that government efforts to combat terrorism were too concerned with protecting the civil rights at the expense of national security.[2] (But the NSA already knew that.)   In early July 2013, 42 percent of Americans had a positive view of Edward Snowden. By mid-July, however, his approval rating had fallen to 36 percent, while 43 percent had an unfavorable opinion of him.[3]

At the end of 2014, 56 percent of Americans believed that torture used by the CIA on captured Al Qaeda members and other suspected terrorists had provided valuable information that helped prevent terrorist attacks. Curiously, only 51 percent of Americans believed that the methods used had been justified. That is, about 5 percent of Americans believed that torture had produced valuable intelligence and still thought it unjustified. Partisan division on this issue matched that on many other issues: 76 percent of Republicans believed the methods were justified compared to 37 percent of Democrats.[4]

In July 2014, just after the dramatic advances made by ISIS in Iraq, 51 percent of Americans laid the crisis at the feet of former President George W. Bush, while 55 percent said that President Barack Obama was doing a poor job of handling the crisis.[5] Even so, a clear majority then opposed intervention, while 39 percent supported it.

In Spring 2015, ISIS outlawed the wearing of “Nike” brand clothing or footwear by its soldiers.[6] In retaliation, the United States began bombing. (The rich man’s IED.) By August 2015, 5,500 American air-strikes against ISIS had killed an estimated 15,000 jihadists. (That’s fewer than three jihadists/air strike. Not exactly cost-efficient, since most of the strikes are launched off carriers in the Arabian Sea.) Moreover, new recruits have filled up the places of many of the dead. Intelligence estimates suggested that ISIS still fielding a force of 20,000 to 30,000 troops.[7] American air-strikes also sought to disrupt, even destroy, the ability of ISIS to pump, transport, and sell oil from wells in Iraq and Syria. Again, the results disappoint. ISIS still earns $50 million a month from covert oil sales.[8]

By mid-August 2015, Americans were having a hard time sorting out the proposed agreement with Iran on nuclear issues. They divided into roughly equal groups between supporters (35 percent), opponents (33 percent), and “don’t know” (32 percent). The divisions within the parties are interesting. While a big block of Democrats (58 percent) support the agreement and a big block of Republicans (60 percent) oppose it, a small share of Democrats (8 percent) oppose it and a small share of Republicans (15 percent) support it. That leaves 34 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of Republicans “not sure.”[9]

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 15 July 2015, p. 19. My best friend from high-school has a son who is an Army Ranger. He has deployed seven times. “Some gave all, most gave none.”

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 29 January 2010, p. 21.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 July 2013, p. 15.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 26 December 2014, p. 17.

[5] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 18 July 2014, p. 15. About half as many (27 percent) blamed President Obama for the crisis.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 15 May 2015, p. 16.

[7] “Noted,” The Week, 14 August 2015, p. 16.

[8] “Noted,” The Week, 6 November 2015, p. 20.

[9] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 14 August 2015, p. 17.

The Perils of Pauline (sorry, of Hillary).

Back in late August and early September 2015, only 37 percent of Democrats supported Hillary Clinton for President.[1] By late August 2015, 45 percent of Democrats wanted Joe Biden to get into the Democratic primaries, while 47 percent of Democrats wanted him to stay out, and 8 percent weren’t sure.[2] By late September 2015, 42 percent supported Hillary Clinton. Then Biden decided not to run. She’s back!

Nagging at the Presidential Revenant was polling data showing that she is unpopular with white male voters. In Iowa, 66 percent of white male voters had an unfavorable view of her, while only 27 had a favorable view of her.[3] Yes, Iowa is a conservative state and the polling sampled all voters, not just Democrats. Yes, she will do much better in liberal states. Yes, she is building a coalition of women and minorities. Still, in a tight race, she could not easily just write-off the white male vote.

The numbers show a real division of opinion among mainstream Democrats about Hillary Clinton. She can be beaten in at least some of the primaries, just as she was before. Moreover, depending on which candidate the Republicans nominate, she can be beaten in the general election. To believe otherwise is to ignore the strength of underlying opinion and organization among likely voters. Republicans hold the majority in both the House and the Senate, in 70 percent of state legislatures, and the governor’s mansion in 30 states.[4] Even if successful in winning the White House, a President Clinton likely would face the same situation that Barack Obama has faced. It wouldn’t matter what platform she had run on, legislation would be blocked by Congress and executive actions challenged in court by many states.

However, other poll numbers challenge this view. A late October 2015 poll found that 57 percent of Democrats saw their party as more united than divided, while only22 percent saw it as more divided than united.[5] The same poll found that 57 percent of Republicans saw their own party more divided than united, while 28 percent saw it as more united than divided. The Republicans had good reason to see their party as divided. On the one hand, it had a mass of candidates vying for the presidential nomination through personal vituperation. On the other hand, a bitter fight over the leadership ripped through the Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

Perhaps Hillary Clinton’s best hope is to run to the center and hope that the Republicans wreck their chances by nominating a complete clown. It isn’t clear yet how far she may have to veer left in the primaries. At least in some cases, her stance on social issues (enhanced background check for gun purchases, gay-marriage, a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants) and economic issues (a mandatory increase in the minimum wage, rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership) can be spun as either progressive or mainstream.[6]

For their part, Republicans are doing what they can to stir up both the Republican and Democratic bases. They have been pushing restrictions on abortion and on access to the voting booth, along with more tax cuts, and a politicized inquiry into the Benghazi disaster.

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 2 October 2015, p. 17.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 28 August 2015, p. 15.

[3] Josh Kraushaar, “Clinton’s white male problem,” The Week, 23 October 2015, p. 12.

[4] Matthew Yglesias, “Democrats sleepwalking to disaster,” The Week, 30 October 2015, p. 12.

[5] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 23 October 2015, p. 17.

[6] “Clinton: lurching too far to the left?” The Week, 30 October 2015, p.16.

No Duty to Retreat.

“Here’s the thing about rights—they’re not actually supposed to be voted on. That’s why they’re called rights.”–Rachel Maddow, August 2010. Still, people try to justify the “right to keep and bear arms.” One justification is that of self-defense. Is there anything to this justification for individual gun-ownership?[1] It’s controversial. Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of people believe that having a gun in the house will make a person safer. Over half (56 percent) believe that people would be safer if more people carried concealed weapons. Basically, people think that dialing 911 doesn’t save people who are already dead or those who will die between the time you make the call and time the cops make an effective response.[2]

There are a lot of risks involved in keeping a gun in the house. For one thing, the risk of death from suicide is much greater. Although gun-owners are no more likely to attempt suicides than are non-gun-owners, they are much more likely to succeed if they do try it. Guns play a large role in the roughly 20,000 suicides in the US every year. Then, one study calculated that people who keep a gun in the house are 90 percent more likely to die of homicide than are people who do not keep a gun in the house. Another study found that an armed person was 4.5 times more likely to be shot during an assault than are people without a gun.[3] Not having a gun makes one more likely to run away in the face of danger than would be the case if one had a weapon.[4]

Florida State University criminology professor Gary Kleck ran one survey that led him to believe that guns are used in some form of “self-defense” up to 2.5 million times a year. “Nonsense,” say the critics. The FBI reports that there were only 258 “justifiable homicides”[5] in 2012 out of 14,827 total homicides. Another study found that there were fewer than 1,600 self-defense shootings—fatal and non-fatal–in 2014 out of a total of 52,000 shootings.

What if somebody breaks into your house (a “home invasion”)? In theory, your chances of getting killed in such an incident are virtually nil. In practice, between 1980 and 2008, the percentage of homicides that occurred during a felony—a home break-in or a street assault–was higher for elderly homicide victims age 65 or older than for homicide victims of other ages—rising from 30 percent at age 60 to 40 percent at age 85.[6] They died of not shooting back.

Back of the envelope, if there were about 50,000 shootings a year and about 15,000 deaths, then there was a wounding-to-death ratio of about 2 to 1. If that ratio were applied to “justifiable homicides,” then 258 “justifiable homicides:” would yield a figure of non-lethal “justifiable shootings” of maybe 550 shootings in addition to the “justifiable homicides.” That makes for an annual total of about 800 shootings in which the civilian shooter was “justified” in using force. However, the 2014 figure of 1,600 self-defense shooting indicates a much higher share of woundings to deaths.

So, broadly, there isn’t much ground for claiming that guns provide self-defense.

Unless you’re one of the people who saved your life by shooting some son-of-a-bitch.

[1] “Firearms and self-defense,” The Week, 6 November 2015, p. 14.

[2] In only 7 out of a total of 160 “active shooter” incidents catalogue by the FBI between 2000 and 2013, armed people shot the assailants to bring the slaughter to an end. Only one of those cases involved an armed civilian, rather than an off-duty police officer or an armed security guard. Obviously, gun-rights advocates will argue that this small number results from people not being allowed to carry weapons in many public venues.

[3] Those are correlations, not causation. Maybe people who keep guns in the house do so because they know violent people.

[4] This raises all sorts of psycho-cultural issues about “manhood” (and “womanhood”/dealing with abusive males).

[5] “The killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen.”

[6] See: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/htus8008.pdf

A Turk’s Head Knot.

After years of keeping hundreds of thousands of refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria within its borders, Turkey has been allowing many of them (and from other troubled places) to leave for Europe. How can we explain this sudden shift in Turkish policy?

In the June 2015 elections, long-time ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority to a coalition of Kurds, leftists, secularists, and young people under the umbrella of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).[1] The defeat, however, did not create a clear majority for Erdogan’s opponents. Instead, it created a “hung parliament” that made new elections necessary on 1 November 2015. One key element in the popular estrangement from Erdogan had been his increasingly autocratic tendencies and his desire to revise the Turkish constitution to grant more power to the executive. The frustrated Erdogan cast about for some means of regaining the lost voters before the looming election.

One answer came in an attack on the Kurds. The First Gulf War (1990-1991) resulted in a protected area for Kurds in northern Iraq. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the creation of a nascent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Since Summer 2014, the war against ISIS has bolstered American support for the Kurds. A Kurdish state has been rising on Turkey’s southern border for some time. However, Erdogan’s government had been engaged in peace-talks with the Kurds. Suddenly, after the June elections, Erdogan lashed out. Turkey belatedly joined the air war against ISIS, but its attacks have mostly targeted Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in Syria. These attacks struck groups purportedly linked to the Kurdish autonomist (i.e independence) group, the PKK. Nationalist mobs attacked Kurdo-phile[2] sites in Turkey.[3] In mid-October 2015, two suicide bombers killed about 100 people at an anti-government rally in the capital city of Ankara. Although police already had discovered suicide vests in raids on ISIS hide-outs in turkey, security at the rally appears to have been very lax.[4]

Another answer came in an attack on the European Union. Although the EU seems to have been content to ignore the increasing authoritarianism in the leader of a country seeking EU membership, this hasn’t satisfied Erdogan. Suddenly, huge numbers of Syrian (and other) refugees in Turkey began to flood westward.   Most of them departed from a narrow section of the Turkish coast adjacent to the Greek island of Lesbos. Recently, the over-whelmed European Union (EU) sent German Chancellor Angela Merkel to try to negotiate a solution with President Erdogan. The Turkish president opened the conference by demanding $3 billion in EU aid for the 2 million refugees currently in Turkey. However, he extended the deal beyond just the refugee crisis. Erdogan asked for an end to the requirement that Turks entering the EU obtain a visa and for revival of and progress on Turkey’s application for membership in the European Union. In return, Turkey would halt the flow of refugees out of the country. Merkel could make no firm response to Erdogan’s proposal because any change in policy would have to be approved by the EU member nations. Thus, it is clear that Turkey is manipulating the refugee crisis to advance other policies.

How did this strategy pan-out for Erdogan and the AKP? In the 1 November elections, the AKP won 49.5 percent of the vote and 317 legislative seats, giving it majority of 84. The question now is whether Erdogan has poisoned one or more wells in his quest for a majority.

[1] “Turkey: Onslaught against Kurds as election nears,” The Week, 25 September 2015, p. 15.

[2] Is this a real term?

[3] While the cops stood around with their hands in their pockets.

[4] “Turkey: Who benefits from a gruesome attack?” The Week, 23 October 2015, p. 14.